By HOWARD BERGER
VANCOUVER (Apr. 11) – Welcome to the home of the Presidents’ Trophy, where a reporter from Toronto traveled more than four-and-a-half hours by air on Tuesday to watch the nearest Canadian team begin the Stanley Cup playoffs on home ice. Once upon a time, that same reporter traveled 35 minutes south – by car – to do the same.
Speaking of the latter trek, any person expecting concrete answers from Brian Burke yesterday at the Air Canada Centre wasn’t paying attention to his legendary “18-wheeler” analogy of Mar. 4. If the Maple Leafs president and general manager couldn’t tell us why his club had spiraled into oblivion the morning after he fired Ron Wilson, he wasn’t bound to enlighten a province-wide TV audience during his annual season-ending congregation with reporters. Nor did he.
Keeping it brief, humble and close to the vest, Burke offered nothing tangible about his team’s monumental collapse, or his plan to make a fifth run at ending the franchise-record playoff drought. He quickly – and unconvincingly – echoed a mea culpa from Larry Tanenbaum: the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment having decorated a full, right-hand page in sports sections across the city apologizing for another season of failure, while denouncing Burke in everything but name.
Those even vaguely familiar with the Leafs GM would understand the wave of nausea that must have enveloped him as he opened his morning paper on Monday.
Of significance, however, was the connection Burke made between his smallish, flimsy roster and its most humiliating hours of the 2011-12 season. Capitulating in all six encounters against the Boston Bruins likely contributed to the insomnia Burke mentioned as a side-effect of his team’s plummet. Determining which was more harmful – the parts, or the sum of the parts against the defending Stanley Cup champions – is nearly impossible; suffice to say the Leafs and Bruins were the hockey version of Men Are From Mars; Women Are From Venus (and we’ll let you decide who the women were).
While being out-gunned, 36-10, by the Bruins this season, the Leafs were stripped naked. Toronto players would have been less-exposed had they skated out in their birthday suits. Decimation by the defending champs occurred in all parts of the schedule and in varied circumstances. It began the first time Leafs wore their white road jerseys, which served to highlight the contrasting embarrassment.
THE CAUSEWAY ST. SLAUGHTER-HOUSE – WHERE LEAFS OF 2011-12 CAME TO DIE.
A night after gallantly rebounding to edge Winnipeg in a shootout on home-ice – bumping the club’s undefeated mark to 4-0-1 – Wilson felt confident enough to start Jonas Gustavsson in goal for the first time since the previous January, when he’d been riddled with bullets in a 7-0 loss at Madison Square Garden. The Monster followed up with an eerily-similar dud in Beantown, and Leafs were no longer unbeaten in regulation after a 6-2 romp.
Seventeen nights later, the champs paid a visit to the ACC at a moment of utter euphoria for Toronto hockey fans; a victory at Columbus – in the debut, Nov. 3, of goalie Ben Scrivens – vaulting Leafs to the summit of the 30-team NHL with a record of 9-3-2 after 14 games. Scrivens and Gustavsson, however, were scored on by the Bruins from everywhere but the upper-deck as Boston filled in the home side, 7-0. Leafs’ two-night stay atop the grid seemed rather fleeting. It was a seminal moment for the Blue and White and it sent the club into its first tailspin, a 2-5-1 wobble over eight games.
But, spirits were soaring, once again, by the time Claude Julien and Co. sauntered into town on Nov. 30. After a narrow, 3-2 loss in a matinee visit to Carolina, the Leafs authored a spectacular finish to their late-November road trip – downing Tampa Bay, Dallas and Anaheim by an aggregate count of 16-6 (the latter game, a 5-2 rout at Honda Center, ending Randy Carlyle’s long tenure behind the Ducks’ bench). Surely, the Leafs would now be able to man up against the Bruins, even with Boston performing at near-perfection (11-0-1) in the month of November. Not!
Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Zdeno Chara abused the defenseless Buds in a 6-3 triumph that flattered the home team. A headline at NHL.com – re-capping the game – read: “So Far, Bruins Are Leafs’ Kryptonite”. Little did anyone realize the might of Superman’s radioactivity.
Optimism of another sort was eradicated when the Leafs tip-toed into Boston three days later. Wilson flat-out lied to Toronto reporters by saying Gustavsson would “likely start in goal” at TD Garden – more than 24 hours after telling James Reimer he’d be playing – and the club’s No. 1 netminder returned to the crease after nursing a sore neck. Six full weeks had passed since the goal-mouth collision with Brian Gionta in Montreal and the lay-off was noticeable in another Bruins’ cake-walk – 4-1 – Reimer getting bested by one-time Leafs’ draft pick Tuukka Rask.
It was a measure of the Bruins’ absence from Toronto’s schedule that Leafs were able to put together their best string of games: a 10-4-2 mark between Jan. 3 and Feb. 6 that vaulted the Blue and White to within four points of fourth place in the Eastern Conference. On Feb. 7 – ironically, the date of the greatest individual feat in team and league history – the Leafs boarded their 18-wheeler in Winnipeg and pointed it southwest… toward the Grand Canyon. A narrow triumph by the Jets on the 36th anniversary of Darryl Sittler’s 10-point game began the un-stoppable, month-long journey to the edge of that not-so-imaginary cliff.
By the time the dreaded black-and-gold made its next appearance in Toronto – Mar. 6 – Leafs were playing for a new coach and a new season. Coincidentally or not, Randy Carlyle’s home debut behind the bench sparked the club to its only competitive hour against the Bruins: a 5-4 set-back, impressively earned with a four-goal meltdown in the second period.
Then came Monday, Mar. 19, an otherwise-splendid, short-sleeve-weather day in Boston.
Only once during the nosedive of 2012 did the Maple Leafs win consecutive games: road conquests at Tampa and Ottawa that sparked fanciful talk of a playoff appearance heading into the sixth and final encounter with the Bruins. No such chatter was evident around 9:40 that night, when the visitors left the ice at TD Garden – their bodies, first, followed by their heads – after an 8-0 hind-whipping that ranks with any hour of humiliation for Toronto hockey fans in the post-1967 era.
THE NIGHT – AND SITE – OF LEAFS MOST HUMILIATING HOUR.
Rarely have even the worst Leaf teams looked as patently terrified as the trembling bunch that night in Beantown – fully aware, to the ignorance of others, that they had no emotional or physical capacity to rival their season-long nemesis. Destroyed on every square-inch of the Garden ice, the visitors packed it in for good less than 48 hours before the vernal equinox (otherwise known as spring – a foreign segment of the calendar to Leaf fans). Absolutely nothing that occurred after Mar. 19 had any reasonable bearing on Burke, as the GM clarified during his post-mortem address.
Thus begins yet another off-season hunt for back-bone – clearly one of the more difficult elements to procure… at least in Toronto. Burke has been able to go big and ham-handed (Colton Orr, Jay Rosehill, Mike Komisarek) or small and dexterous (Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur). Summoning a large body with a modicum of skill remains a work in progress for double-B – one he is certain must be obtained before his club can move forward with conviction.
I came here to glorious British Columbia yesterday to begin my playoff coverage this spring with Games 1-4 of the Vancouver-Los Angeles opening-round series. Photo-blogs will continue to appear in this space and my not-so-dulcet tones can be heard on XM-Radio Canada (@NHLHomeIce) from now until the Stanley Cup is raised in early-June.
DEPARTING TORONTO (ABOVE) ON TUESDAY AND FLYING PAST VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (BELOW) FOR TURN-AROUND AND APPROACH NEARLY FIVE HOURS LATER.
SNOW-CAPPED MOUNTAINS NORTH AND WEST OF VANCOUVER (ABOVE) ON FINAL APPROACH TO THE AIRPORT… AND FROM THE GROUND (BELOW).
AIRPORT RETAILERS ARE STOCKED (ABOVE) WITH CANUCKS PLAYOFF MERCHANDISE WHILE THE CONTROL TOWER AT VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL DISPLAYS “EMOTION” (BELOW).
DUSK SETTLES OVER THE BURRARD INLET HERE IN VANCOUVER ON TUESDAY.
Facebook: Howard Berger [Thornhill ON]